Women’s Inheritance Rights – Part 1


Women! / Equal Rights – Equal obligations / Selects Social Democrats! 1919
Draft: Fritz Gottfried Kirchbach

Historically, women have had abysmally unequal inheritance rights and, in some countries, that’s the case even today. Those of you who watched the Downton Abbey might remember the Grantham family’s quandary in Season 1 about who would inherit the family title and the property since Lord Grantham and Lady Cora did not have a son. What made the situation even more ironic was the fact that a large portion of the property was brought in, as dowry perhaps, by Lady Cora when she married Lord Grantham. In the absence of a son, the primogeniture rules implied that both the title and the property would be inherited by the closest male relative in the patrilineal line. So, the best option that would ensure that the Grantham fortune could be “inherited” by the Grantham girls was to get one of the daughters married to this closest-male-heir, i.e., Matthew. Luckily, all turned out well, and Mary fell in love with and married Matthew, and even though Matthew died soon after, he left the family with a son, preventing another arranged marriage.

TV dramas and human rights aside, why do we care about unequal inheritance rights? A big reason is that inheritance is a major determinant of asset ownership or wealth status, which in turn affects our ability to borrow, among other things. So gender biases in inheritance laws can lead to income and other inequalities by gender for a long time. Women comprise 70% of the world’s poorest people and own 1% of the titled land; these two facts are related.

The disinherited status of women has always been closely tied to marriage. Historically, under Roman Law and British common law, single men and women had the same property rights, but a married woman was considered an extension of her husband. So, a wife’s inheritance became a husband’s property and women could not leave a will. The property rights of widows were, in fact, stronger than those of married women. Under the Doctrine of Couverture, wives lost the right to manage any real property (i.e., immovable property, such as land) they had brought into a marriage and lost control over any personal (i.e., movable) property they owned, including any wages or salaries they might earn after marriage! If the couple separated, the husband continued to control his wife’s property, including any income from her real property and her salary! No wonder marriage has been so essential for women’s well-being for ever. Thankfully, reforms began around mid-to-late 19th century.

Women in countries that used Roman law, e.g., France, Spain, and most of Latin America, retained ownership of their personal property upon marriage, but the management of their real property passed to their husbands. If the marriage ended for any reason, women retained their own individual property, both real and personal, as well as half of the community property. Under Islamic law, married women also retained a legal personality and could own, inherit, and bequeath property. So in terms of women’s inheritance rights, Islamic law > Roman law > British common law.

So what happens when inheritance rights are equalized? More on that in the next post.

P.S. An interesting tidbit from Wikipedia: “As recently as 1972, two US states allowed a wife accused in criminal court to offer as a legal defense that she was obeying her husband’s orders.”

Image courtsey: Duetsches Historiches Museum


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